SpaceX and Boeing are both working toward full certification of their respective spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). it’s been a long road, but SpaceX was set to launch its first demonstration mission (Demo-1) on Jan. 7th, 2019. There has been yet another delay, but at least this one is short. The launch is now scheduled for Jan. 17th.
NASA frames this as an “adjustment” rather than a delay. Although, delays are nothing new in spaceflight. It’s a high-stakes mission even if there won’t be any passengers aboard. Even a small error could result in a significant setback as NASA and SpaceX scramble to identify and fix the issue. A minor fuel leak on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule several months ago contributed to a multi-month delay in its testing schedule.
Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program said the team still has more work to do before launching the mission. “We are not driven by dates, but by data,” said Leuders. There is some sense of urgency, though. NASA has been purchasing seats aboard Russian Soyuz missions since the retirement of the Space Shuttle seven years ago. It purchased those seats ahead of time, but the contract will run out at the end of 2019. NASA needs a working commercial vehicle to maintain access to the station in 2020.
Demo-1 will relay important data about the rocket’s performance, the crew capsule, and the autonomous docking system. This is an essential step to make sure SpaceX is ready to carry passengers, even though it’s successfully flown cargo to the station for years now. Following Demo-1, SpaceX will need to show that its launch abort system is ready to carry astronauts away from the Falcon 9 launch vehicle in the event of an emergency. A similar system on the Soyuz saved two passengers when that rocket suffered a failure earlier this fall.
The next full launch demonstration will take place around April 2019, assuming everything goes as planned next month. The Demo-2 flight will be the first one with a living, breathing crew aboard the Dragon-2 capsule atop the Falcon 9. Flying astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley in that test will be a big step for SpaceX — if all systems operate nominally during Demo-2, SpaceX could get permission to begin flying regular crewed missions to the ISS. The first regular flight for the Dragon-2 is currently on the books for September 2019.
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